NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The spokesman for resurgent Tigray forces in Ethiopia says if forces from the neighboring Amhara region launch a threatened offensive on Saturday, “we'll extend a warm welcome.”
Getachew Reda spoke to The Associated Press shortly after the Amhara region's head of peace and security said “this is the time for the Amhara people to crush the terrorist group.” Such an offensive would go against the unilateral cease-fire that Ethiopia's federal government declared in June as its soldiers retreated from Tigray.
Getachew says Tigray forces have crossed into the Amhara region, and the Afar region, in recent weeks in an attempt to break the blockade that Ethiopia's government has imposed on Tigray. Hundreds of thousands of people face famine conditions, and the United Nations and United States this week sent high-level officials to Ethiopia to urge more access for aid.
“We have to deal with anyone who's still shooting,” Getachew said. “If it takes marching to Addis to silence the guns, we will.” But civilians shouldn't fear, he said in response to allegations by ethnic Amhara that the Tigray forces have carried out attacks.
The spreading conflict threatens to destabilize Africa's second most populous country.
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Ethiopia’s spreading Tigray conflict faces a fresh wave of fighting as an Amhara regional official says Amhara forces will launch an offensive on Saturday against Tigray forces who have entered the region and taken control of a town hosting a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“This is the time for the Amhara people to crush the terrorist group,” Sema Tiruneh, the Amhara region’s head of peace and security, told the regional state-affiliated Amhara Media Corporation on Friday.
“Preparations have been underway to reverse these moves and an offensive will start tomorrow. Freedom doesn’t come cheap. Everyone should come forward and defend themselves.”
Separately, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry on Friday warned that the Tigray forces’ incursion into the Amhara and Afar regions in recent weeks “is testing the federal government’s patience and pushing it to change its defensive mood which has been taken for the sake of the unilateral humanitarian cease-fire.” The incursions have displaced some 300,000 people, it said, accusing the Tigray forces of trying to destabilize Africa’s second most populous country.
Ethiopia’s government is “being pushed to mobilize and deploy the entire defensive capability of the state” if overtures for a peaceful resolution to the conflict are not reciprocated, the statement said.
A spokesman for the Tigray forces, Getachew Reda, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Ethiopia’s government declared the cease-fire in late June during a stunning turn in the war, as its military retreated from Tigray and the resurgent Tigray forces retook key towns and walked into the regional capital, Mekele, to cheers. The conflict erupted in Tigray in November after a falling-out between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray ruling party that had dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly three decades. Since then, thousands of people have been killed.
A new offensive by the Amhara regional forces would go against the federal government’s command: “All federal and regional, civil and military institutions are ordered to respect the cease-fire,” Ethiopia said in its declaration in June.
While the United Nations and United States raise the alarm about the Ethiopian government’s continuing near-complete blockade of the Tigray region and its 6 million people, the Tigray forces have vowed to secure the region and chase its “enemies” even to the capital, Addis Ababa, if needed. They have said the prime minister needs to go as one of several preconditions for talks.
On Thursday the Tigray forces entered the Amhara town of Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its rock-hewn churches. While one resident told The Associated Press they arrived peacefully, Amhara regional spokesman Gizachew Muluneh on Friday said the “terror group” that entered the town is being “routed” by the public and the Ethiopian army. “Several of them have now surrendered,” he added. Ethiopia’s government earlier this year declared the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, a terrorist group instead of a political party.
UNESCO on Friday expressed concern about the expansion of the conflict into Lalibela. "We don’t have firsthand information on any actual damage being done,” U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters.
The conflict has strained living conditions for millions of Ethiopians, and more across the country now fear it will affect them.
“There’s serious suffering in Tigray. (The Tigray forces) had an opportunity to stop the military offensive,” Tewodrose Tirfe with the Amhara Association of America told the AP. “Instead, they kept on pushing.” He asserted that the Tigray forces aim to create a “favorable outcome in a negotiation by creating a humanitarian crisis and holding Amhara civilians and cities hostage.”
Ethiopia’s prime minister repeated his commitment to the unilateral cease-fire just days ago, U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths told reporters on Friday after his meeting with Abiy. “I have no reason to doubt that at all," Griffiths said.
But regional forces vowing a new offensive could be another matter.
As the Tigray forces push on, they have become the focus of increasing warnings from the U.N. and U.S. amid pleas for an immediate cease-fire and talks without conditions.
The civilians in Tigray would benefit, the U.N. humanitarian chief said: “It’s going to be easier for the Tigrayan people if the war is stopped.”
Cara Anna, The Associated Press